Playmakers: Zuri Henry

The Roundup’s end of spring rundown kicks off with a look at players from the one and true king, Southwest Conference, who are primed to pop this fall on a field near you. We call them Playmakers*, we hope by next December they’ll be household names. *This series has no affiliation with the dumpster fire ESPN series from the early 2000s.

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Who says an offensive lineman can’t be a playmaker? Raise your hand? Get out. Go get your sports opinions and typos somewhere else.

We worship the big behemoths here. Without them, the glory-hound running backs and receivers would be like the Amish on New Year’s Eve - underserved and without fireworks.

Meet dancing bear and edge protector Zuri Henry from your UTEP Miners.

If necessity is the mother of invention, UTEP’s offensive line injury woes in 2018 led to an inventive offensive line mix. A group of young, inexperienced players jumped straight into live action. Starting with the losses of Derron Gatewood and Greg Long before the season even started, the Miners used duct tape and baling wire to finagle an offensive front week to week last season.

Henry started eight games at the left tackle position as a true freshman. Putting a freshman on the blind side is a tough ask but Henry not only looked the part, but he also played the part. At 6-5, he’s is a long athlete with a sound base. He’s beefed up to 300 pounds from 280 after an offseason in the strength and conditioning program and he can move.

Blocking beyond the junior varsity “B” team level is an exercise in control, balance, technical proficiency, and mastering distance. If you don’t start with and maintain a decent “set,” you’ll be chasing defenders screaming “watch out!” as those defenders chase your quarterback. From the opener against Northern Arizona, Henry kept consistent sets, looking technically sound beyond his years.

Here’s Henry vs. those SEC boys from Tennessee.

Notice how the freshman keeps balance, forces the rusher upfield with his kick-step, and maintains his balance through good hips, moving his feet, and head discipline. He doesn’t lunge or commit too soon and his head stays over his torso. He gets a little punchy with his hands, creating some unwanted separation, you’d like to see him control a bit more with that inside hand to maintain distance, but very good for your third ever start as a true freshman on the road against an SEC squad and in front of 87,000 slack-jawed yocals.

Here’s Henry against New Mexico State a week later on a quick set.

Watch Henry’s punch on the RPO quick throw. He sets a broader base; the key is to get into the defensive end’s chest and force his hands down to avoid a batted ball, while also squeezing him out to create a run lane. Henry uses his greatest asset, his long arms and shows effective strength to shock the defender, stop him, and control him.

If we’re looking for areas of improvement for Henry in 2019 it’s a short list, especially for a rising sophomore. We’d like to see how he continues to adapt to the speed of the college game, in particular how he sets to shut down the inside rush. At times Henry’s drop was deep and defenders worked underneath him, or inside, to get pressure. We’d also like to see him finish run blocks with a little more nastiness and venom. Again, technically and physically there’s a lot to like about Henry, but we’ll be interested in his continued growth into the position.

If you look at UTEP’s returning production, the outlook is bleak. The Miners lost five of their top six receivers from 2018, their top four tacklers are all gone, and their top three leaders in sacks are no longer with the program. According to our percentile ranks, quarterback Kai Locksley was the lowest rated quarterback among passers with at least 100 attempts.

Locksley spent most of 2018 running for his life. Defenders sacked the first year starter on 13% of his drop backs. That’s among the worst in the FBS. Pressure contributed to his below 50% completion percentage and in some part to his 2-9 TD to interception ratio.

Dana Dimel’s year two success may well hinge on a deep, experienced offensive line. Gatewood and Long both return from injuries, Ruben Guerra, Long, Markos Lujan, Bobby DeHaro, and Elijah Klein and Bijan Hosseini all return along with Henry, making a 2018 deficit position a potential 2019 strength. UTEP returns 112 combined starts on the offensive front. If Henry continues to improve the Miners should have the left tackle position nailed down for several years.

The Roundup…